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Wednesday's Audience - On St. Ignatius of Antioch

3/15/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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"Truly a Doctor of Unity"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 15, 2007 (ZENIT) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at the general audience today on St. Ignatius of Antioch.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Like last Wednesday, today we are talking about the protagonists in the young Church. Last week, we spoke about Pope Clement I, third successor to St. Peter. Today, we will talk about St. Ignatius, who was "the third bishop of Antioch in Syria, from the year 70 to 107," the year of his martyrdom.

At that time, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were the three great cities of the Roman Empire. The Council of Nicaea mentions the three "primacies": that of Rome, and Alexandria and Antioch participate, in a certain sense, in a "primacy."

St. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch, which is now located in Turkey. Here, in Antioch, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, a blossoming Christian community was emerging: Its first bishop was the apostle Peter as is stated in tradition, and "there for the first time the disciples were called Christians" (Act 11:26).

Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century historian, dedicates an entire chapter of his Storia Ecclesiastica to the life and works of Ignatius (3,36).

"From Syria," he writes, "Ignatius was sent to Rome to be thrown to the animals, because of his testimony to Christ. Traveling through Asia, under the severe care of the guards" (which he calls "ten leopards" in his Letter to the Romans, 5:1), "in each city where he stopped, with preaching and admonitions, he reinforced the Churches; above all, he would exhort heatedly to watch out for heresy, which were beginning to come about and recommended not straying from the apostolic tradition."

The first stop on Ignatius' trip toward martyrdom was the city of Smyrna, whose bishop was St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John. Here, Ignatius wrote four letters, respectively to the Church of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome.

Eusebius continues: "Having left Smyrna, Ignatius came to Troas, and from there sent new letters": two to the Churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and one to Bishop Polycarp.

Eusebius completes the list of letters, which have come to us from the first-century Church like a precious treasure. Reading these texts, one can feel the freshness of the faith of the generation that had still known the apostles. We can also feel in these letters the ardent love of a saint. Finally from Troas, the martyr reached Rome, where, in the Flavian Amphitheater, he was thrown to the lions.

No other Church Father expressed as intensely as Ignatius the wish for union with Christ and life in him. This is why we have read the Gospel of the vine, which according to the Gospel of St. John is Jesus.

Two spiritual currents can be found in St. Ignatius: St. Paul's tending toward union with Christ and St. John's concentrating on life in him. In turn, these two currents merge into "imitation of Christ" many times proclaimed by Ignatius as my or our God.

Therefore Ignatius begs the Roman Christians to not postpone his martyrdom, because he was "impatient to join Jesus Christ." And explains: "It is beautiful for me to die going toward ('eis') Jesus Christ, rather than reigning to the ends of the earth. I look for him, who died for me, I want him, who was resurrected for us. Let me imitate the Passion of my God!" (Romans 5-6).

In these expressions of burning love we can see the specific Christological realism typical of the Church of Antioch, evermore attentive to the incarnation of the Son of God and his true and concrete humanity. Ignatius writes to the Smyrnaeans, "He is truly of the line of David truly born of a virgin truly was he nailed for us" (1,1).

Ignatius' irresistible tension toward union with Christ founds a real "mystique of unity." He defines himself as "a man who has been given the duty of unity" (Philadelphians 8,1).

For Ignatius, union is "above all a prerogative of God who being three," is one in absolute union. He often repeats that God is union and only in God can this be found in the pure and original state. The union to be reached in this world by Christians is but an imitation, the closest possible to the divine archetype. In this way, Ignatius elaborates a vision of the Church, closely recalling certain expression of the Letter to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome.

For example, he writes to the Christians of Ephesus: "Wherefore it is fitting that you should run in accordance with the will of your bishop, a thing you also do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking ...

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